Bill Gates. Elon Musk. Barack Obama. Jeff Bezos. Mike Bloomberg. Joe Biden. Kanye West. Those are just a handful of the major, million-plus-follower Twitter accounts that were compromised Wednesday afternoon, each in service of a bitcoin scam that has already earned the hackers behind it well over $100,000 in a few short hours. And counting. In response, Twitter appears to have blocked many, if not all, verified accounts from tweeting.
The trouble appears to have started in the early afternoon, Eastern time, when the accounts of several major cryptocurrency players were hacked within minutes of one another. Targets included Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, the exchanges Bitfinex, Gemini, and Coinbase, the news site Coindesk, and several others. They all shared an identical message about “giving back to the community” and a link to a site called Cryptoforhealth. That page currently does not load.
The attackers soon moved on to high-profile tech executives, companies, celebrities, and politicians, who posted tweets with a more overt scam. The language has remained fairly consistent across the hacked accounts. “I am giving back to the community,” a typical victim’s tweet reads. “All Bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled! If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000. Only doing this for 30 minutes.” Numerous non-verified accounts also sent out similar messages, but it's unclear whether those accounts were also compromised or if some of them were bots.
All the messages appear to lead back to the same digital wallet, which received its first incoming transaction at 3:03 pm EDT. It has recorded around 300 transactions since, although several of those are outgoing. It's not clear at this time to where.
This kind of bitcoin scam is a classic, although usually it involves people impersonating celebrity accounts rather than actually hacking them. We wrote about it a couple of years ago. A scammer creates a fake Elon Musk account, say, and promises to pay out a big chunk of bitcoin to anyone who sends a small amount to their digital wallet. And that’s the whole scam.
Or at least it was, until hackers figured out how to take over dozens of the most popular accounts on Twitter.
"These scams work because of a gambling mentality: Give a little bit of money, get a lot of money," says Ronnie Tokazowski, a senior threat researcher at the email security firm Agari. "Just the idea of risk versus reward. It's especially dangerous right now, because so many people are struggling.”
Twitter has experienced high-profile account takeovers in the past several years. An employee nuked Donald Trump’s account for 11 minutes in 2017. And more recently, a wave of hacks reached its apex when a SIM-swapping group that goes by “Chuckling Squad” managed to get the keys to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s account.
This current meltdown seems unlikely to be connected to SIM-card trickery; most of the accounts in question undoubtedly have multiple levels of protection in place. Coindesk specifically stated Wednesday that it had two-factor authentication enabled but was compromised all the same.
It's unclear who was behind the attack, but according to threat intelligence firm RiskIQ it appears to be an established group. Researchers from the company say they've identified 400 domains linked to the hackers, based on structural similarities with the initial site that had been circulated. The implicated domains include URLs that suggest affiliations with Bill Gates, Binance, Elon Musk, Tesla, Space X, and Walmart. "Looking at our historical data, we see that this infrastructure has been in use for quite a while," says RiskIQ threat researcher Yonathan Klijnsma. "That tells us this group has been copying brands and using their cryptocurrency schemes for a while, but compromising verified twitter accounts was a new attack vector for them."
There has been speculation as well that the hacks might be related to a third-party app or service that has access to Twitter’s API. But multiple scam tweets appear to have been sent by the “Twitter web app,” which is to say, using Twitter in a browser. That source info can be faked, but that seems unlikely at this scale. All of which suggests that the hackers may have full access to these accounts, in which case they would also be able to read all of their private direct messages—a layer of exposure that in some cases should be even more alarming than the cryptocurrency scam.
"What really worries me is in a sense we got lucky because someone used it for some very public displays, some very public scam," says Andrea Barisani, head of hardware security at F-secure. "But what if you would use the same power to make some very subtle tweets affecting the stock market or political statements or something more scary."
“We are aware of a security incident impacting accounts on Twitter,” the official Twitter Support account tweeted Wednesday. “We are investigating and taking steps to fix it. We will update everyone shortly.” At 6:18 pm EDT, it followed up that "you may be unable to Tweet or reset your password while we review and address this incident." The limitations appear to affect verified accounts, many of which were restored in the hours after Twitter imposed the restrictions. At around 9:30pm ET, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that "we all feel terrible this happened," with a promise of a detailed explanation in the future.
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At 10:38pm ET, the official Twitter Support account gave a more detailed explanation of the company's findings so far. "We detected what we believe to be a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools," the thread states. "We know they used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf. We’re looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed and will share more here as we have it."
It's unclear whether that information could potentially include direct messages sent to or from the affected accounts. Twitter also said that while most verified counts have had service restored by now, compromised accounts remain locked, and will be restored "to the original account owner only when we are certain we can do so securely." Twitter further said it would take steps to limit access to internal tools.
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The explanation lines up with reports on social media and at Motherboard that indicated the hackers had access to internal Twitter tools, rather than attacking individual accounts.
A spokesperson for Bill Gates’ private office said in a statement, “We can confirm that this tweet was not sent by Bill Gates. This appears to be part of a larger issue that Twitter is facing. Twitter is aware and working to restore the account.”
Until it does, no Twitter user—especially those with large followings—should feel at ease. This is normally the time when WIRED would tell you to start using two-factor authentication (and you should!), but based on what we now know, that that wouldn't have protected you in the first place.
This story has been updated with infrastructure details from RiskIQ and Jack Dorsey and Twitter Support's tweets. We’ll continue to update this story as more details are available.
Additional reporting by Lily Hay Newman.